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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

3/5/2015 9:13:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Gov. LePage Goes After Portland for Sheltering Homeless People with Money in the Bank
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan responded to Gov. LePage’s allegations of mismanagement at Portland’s homeless shelters last week. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan responded to Gov. LePage’s allegations of mismanagement at Portland’s homeless shelters last week. (Photo by Andi Parkinson)
by Andy O’Brien

The mercury had plunged to well below zero as 282 homeless people lined up at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland last month for a chance to sleep on one of 142 mats on the floor of a crowded room full of strangers. For Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann, one of his greatest fears is having to turn anyone away, particularly on such a frigid night. As Swann described in a press conference last week, 75 people ended up sleeping on the floor of the soup kitchen, 68 sat up all night in chairs at city offices, while a few ended up waiting 11 hours before the next bed opened up so they could sleep two hours before the night shelter closed for the day.

"Who wants this? Who chooses this? And is someone really getting away with something by getting this mat to sleep on?" asked Swann. "How on God's green earth could offering this meager service be considered 'too generous'?"

Swann's organization had suddenly become the latest target in Governor Paul LePage's scorched-earth campaign against the City of Portland's General Assistance program, which provides substantial funding to the shelter. Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services and its far-right allies at the Maine Heritage Policy Center launched a full-on media assault against Portland for what they argue is wasteful spending on emergency shelter services for the homeless. The smoking gun, they say, is a DHHS audit of the Oxford Street and Family Shelter, which alleges that 13 long-term stayers at the shelters were given a warm place to sleep despite the fact that they had bank accounts valued at over $20,000. The 13 individuals had stayed for an average of about three years and 10 months.

Under state law, GA recipients are supposed to submit to an asset test to determine whether they actually qualify for emergency housing and food. However, over 25 years ago, the state allowed the chronically underfunded shelters to receive GA funding for residents, who could be presumed eligible for emergency shelter if they are willing to wait in line to sleep on a thin mat six inches away from strangers while clutching their personal belongings. However, DHHS has maintained that shelters are only temporarily exempt from means-testing clients and must ensure that everyone they bill the state for isn't secretly loaded.

This latest salvo comes as the administration is pushing a new budget that would cut over $4.4 million in General Assistance to Portland on the belief that the current funding formula gives the state's largest city a "perverse incentive" to spend money on the poor. The city receives about $2.2 million in GA reimbursements from the state to provide emergency shelter for the homeless. Portland and the LePage administration are also currently locked in a legal battle over the governor's decision to unilaterally cut off state GA support for legal non-citizen asylum seekers.

As the news of the audit broke, the governor's staff immediately took to the radio, TV, newspapers and online social media to inflame the conservative base over the latest case of perceived welfare fraud.

"Have you been following the news? The City of Portland, which spends more on welfare than others, was found giving free housing to people who had tens of thousands of dollars in their bank accounts," the governor's staff gleefully wrote on his official Facebook page. "One person had $92,424 in the bank yet had stayed at the taxpayer-funded shelter for more than 10 years. Know this: the City of Portland spends 63% of the entire state's General Assistance welfare dollars, despite having only 5% of the state's population. You read that correctly. Governor LePage is cracking down on welfare fraud and working to reform welfare payments in his new budget. Speak up and support the Governor's budget. Let's fix these problems."

With over 3,537 "likes" and 800 shares, the red meat was a smash hit. "Go get 'em! Go after those deadbeats!" wrote one commenter. "Make them pay it back and serve jail time. Don't forget to throw in the fact that they will never qualify for assistance again. Scumbags!" wrote another.

But as Swann pointed out, the clients in the report were more likely seriously mentally ill people than rich welfare cheats playing the system. He said his organization did a survey two years ago and found that 30 of the longest-stayers in the shelter had "serious, persistent untreated mental illness." He doubted that many even knew they had the money and even if they did, they probably would not be able to access it. He began his response to the governor's allegations of mismanagement with a story about one of the longest-staying residents.

"A beautiful elderly woman named Diane in her 70s sat outside our soup kitchen in a folding chair for over a decade waiting for her son to pick her up and take her home," Swann said. "Every single effort to talk with her, to offer her housing and help her in any way, was met with a gentle and soft response: 'I'm fine, dear. Don't worry about me. My son is coming to pick me up on Monday.' This was her response for over a decade. She suffered from schizophrenia with entrenched delusions and would occasionally slip into catatonic states. Tragically, because of the years this lovely woman languished in the shelters, she received no medical treatment and died of breast cancer. Diane's son never picked her up and she never made it home."

According to Swann, the governor's "smoking gun" is more an indictment of the state's failed mental health system than about mismanagement at the shelter.

"They were and are staying at these scary, overcrowded shelters and languishing on the streets because of their mental illness, not to save a few bucks. That's ridiculous to even suggest," Swann said. "And I have to say, anybody who lives, works or visits Portland knows exactly what I mean. These are the same people that wander our city streets, talking to themselves, psychotic, delusional and paranoid. Portlanders see them every single day in Monument Square, at the ferry terminal and Deering Oaks Park. The mental health system is seriously broken and that's not a new development that can or should be blamed on the current administration. The system has been unraveling for decades. The simple fact is that the shelters are overflowing with people who absolutely should not be there, but not because they have money. They shouldn't be there because it's inhumane that our mental health system is unavailable and inaccessible to them. Just like we've seen with our jails, the shelters have become de facto psychiatric institutions, but without the funding, the expertise and the clinical skills needed to treat people. We just do our best to keep people alive."

Swann agrees that General Assistance is an inappropriate way to fund the shelter, but given that the state's General Fund only provides $380,000 a year for the 42 shelters in the state, GA has been the best funding stream available. The current GA payment system for shelters was set up in the 1980s to accommodate the increased number of mentally ill on the streets following the state's decision to "deinstitutionalize" the mental health treatment system. Swann recommended that the Legislature replace the GA funding stream with a special "Compassion Fund" to ensure shelters are funded properly and recognized as a crucial part of the safety net.

Meanwhile, LePage said the audit results prove that municipalities like Portland are wasteful and don't deserve revenue sharing from the state, which his proposed budget would eliminate.

"Municipalities complain about losing revenue sharing, but then I see abuse like this," said LePage. "When municipalities set priorities that unfairly burden Maine property-tax payers, it's hard to have sympathy for them."

Although using mentally ill homeless people as a political football might strike some as morally questionable, to this right-wing base, the governor just scored another a touchdown.

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